A Travellerspoint blog

December 2008

Home for the Holidays... and then home again.

Flying home to Toronto for a white Christmas in Canada, and then flying home to London for ... well, sleep.

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I am now home again in London, watching reruns of Top Gear on Dave (that'll make sense to people from the UK - for the others, I'm watching TV), doing laundry and wondering what happened to the dryer in my flat since I was last here. It now sounds a little like the inside of a jet engine, and that's just what it sounds like one room over. Being in the actual laundry room adds another 100 db of noise as well as the somewhat disconcerting smell of burning rubber.

To get from Phoenix (site of my last blog entry) to London required two flights, and there were the most eventfully uneventful flights I have ever taken. By that, I mean they were both really good flights in that nothing bad happened. In fact, they were all good.

I'll cover more on the second flight later, but the first flight from Phoenix to Toronto I used an upgrade coupon to get myself upgraded to business class. As an Elite flyer on Air Canada, I can use a coupon to upgrade from economy to business class if the original fare was of a certain set of fare classes. My flight from Toronto to London a few days later was of a specific fare class that I could not use my status coupons on, so I figured this was my last chance to use an upgrade coupon, as I haven't flown enough miles this year to requalify as an Elite flyer.

The only bad thing about the entire flight I mentioned in my last entry, and that was the fact that it left 50 minutes late. However, the captain but the pedal down and we only landed 30 minutes late in Toronto. Otherwise, it was quite fine. The business class seat was one of the "old" style of regular, but larger and cushier seats than economy. My IFE (In-Flight Entertainment) system worked fine, and I spent my time watching Ghost Town staring Ricky Gervais, eating a nice meal and drinking free Heinekens, though not too many as I was driving when I got to Toronto. I landed, and faced a customs and immigration line of 0 people ahead of me (one of the benefits of leaving the plane from seat 1A). I arrived at the luggage carousel, which in Toronto is usually an incredibly long wait. No difference this time, however my bag was the first one off, which made the wait much less than it could have been. I walked out of the airport relaxed and happy, which isn't usually a way one leaves an airport.

Christmas itself was good. I saw my family and had a big turkey dinner. Christmas Eve was dark and rainy, but at least it was just above the freezing so that I didn't face icy roads. Christmas Day itself was gray, but dry other than a little light snow in the morning. Boxing Day saw some snow, but later in the day the clouds did break and there was some sun.

I took some photos to try and capture the mixture of white and grey. It's a strange mix of depressing and pretty.

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Boxing Day was my second flight - from Toronto to London. Driving to the airport I passed this plane from now defunct airways XL, one of many low cost airlines that bought the farm this year. XL left a number of UK folks stranded around the globe, but luckily the lead singer of Iron Maiden was available to save the day. Not sure why the plane is now in Toronto - perhaps someone bought it.

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I did have a bit of an incident on Boxing Day. Walking to a table in a fast food restaurant, I accidentally hip-checked a table, and broke the screen on my mobile phone. With no screen, I actually can't do much with it. I can't look up people's phone numbers, and find myself unable to send any messages. No txt till l8r, lol.

My flight to London was again eventfully uneventful. I wasn't expecting to be able to get an upgrade, but ended up getting an "op up." An Air Canada flight to London was cancelled the day before, and Air Canada was still catching up. As such, they were cramming the plane as full as possible. To make sure every seat was full, Air Canada was even putting folks into the business class seats, so I got bumped up to Business Class, in what is called an Operational Upgrade, or "op up."

The plane had lie-flat seats, so I got to stretch out and lie back.

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I did get a few hours sleep, and watched a movie (some historical thing about American wines and a contest in France). The only event was the fact that someone vomited in the sink in the bathroom. Walking out of the bathroom I told the flight attendants in the galley.

"The sink is clogged up," I said.

"I'll check it," one of the guys said, wandering towards the bathroom.

Sure that the situation was in hand, I turned myself to other matters. "Can I have another Heineken?"

As the remaining flight attendant popped me a fresh beer, the other flight attendant returned. "Okay, I'll let you have this beer, but then no more," he said to me.

"What, why?" I asked.

"Well, you just threw up in the sink," he said.

"No, man, that wasn't me. I just found it like that."

"Oh, okay. I think I know who it was," he said, though he never did bring me another beer after that one. Which was fine, because I pressed the ZZZ button, got the bed to lie flat and fell asleep after finishing my Heineken.

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It was more comfortable than trying to sleep sitting up in economy, but frankly it still stunk. I arrived in London having only a couple of hours sleep, feeling tired and achy and just wanting to get home.

Sadly, it took two hours to get from Heathrow to my place due to closures on the London Underground. Tube closures... I am back in London.

Posted by GregW 07:11 Archived in Canada Tagged business_travel Comments (0)

The End of My Forty Days In the Desert (more or less)

Reflections on my last days in Phoenix, Arizona, as it slides out of view from the porthole of an Air Canada Airbus 321.

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With my trip to the ghost town of Swansea behind me, I only had four days left in Phoenix. Three and a half, really, as my flight on December 24th was leaving at 1 PM. Not much occurred, as my Sunday was spent shopping for Christmas presents, flat and unbreakable, to pack in my luggage and take home to Toronto, and Monday through Wednesday was spent completing any and every thing that needed to get done at work.

With that, however, I have a few reflections on my time here in the desert.

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Another Kind of Ghost Town

The office I am working in is surrounded by desert. There are two large buildings and a third under construction, a parking lot for all the workers' cars, and then desert in all directions. I was on the phone with my father last week, sitting in my car after a long day at work, and a coyote came strolling into the parking lot, poking around for any scraps left from the careless humans. I chatted with my father and watched as the coyote weaved in and out of the fence and sniffed at the curb.

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It's not all planned to be wilderness forever, though. In fact, a lot of it was planned to be developed in the next few years. However, with the economy hitting a wall, a lot of those developments have been put on hold, awaiting an upturn. On my way to work in the morning, I pass numerous signs advertising homes for sale, with nothing but vacant desert, or perhaps a few phantom roads marking them.

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With the economy the way it is now, though, there is no guarantee that any of these developments will ever happen. Like Swansea disappeared with the great depression, so to these planned communities may never exist because of a downturn in the economy and a rethinking of building in a waterless desert at a time when fresh water becomes harder to get.

It's a different kind of ghost town, the one that never gets built. Planned, but never executed desert communities, swept over by the same sand that took Swansea.

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Of course, we are all probably living in ghost towns. Unless you happen to live in Jericho in the West Bank, or one of the similarly old cities in the middle east, most of us are living in a place that is relatively new. And there are a lot more places that have disappeared off the map than are still on it.

My house in London is situation in a reclaimed marsh in a time or rising sea levels. That's not exactly a recipe for longevity. I was watching a TV show on the Travel Channel last week that said Niagara Falls would soon (i.e. within a period of time measured in thousands, not millions of years) disappear completely due to rising land mass at it's downstream end. With it, who knows what will happen to any of the Great Lakes cities - Toronto, Buffalo, Cleveland or Chicago. Of course, some of those could disappear much sooner - victims of offshoring of jobs - both manufacturing and white collar. The job I do, as a business analyst, seemed a secure choice to go into once all the programmer jobs disappeared overseas back in the late 90s. Now, not so much. Chinese and Indian Business Analysts are on the verge of being able to do what I do at a fraction of the price. Time for me to start looking for a new path, perhaps.

Who can say what the future holds. Hopefully if it is disaster, it at least holds off until we've all had a chance to live our lives. Sorry to all of you in the future reading this who may have suffered from my wish for things to hold off until I was dead and you were living, but the late 1900s / early 2000s were nothing if not a time for selfishness.

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Feeding the Multitude: Fish In the Desert

Speaking of selfishness, my last night in Phoenix I went to a really good Sushi restaurant called Ra. As one might imagine, there isn't much of a fishing industry in Phoenix, so the fish is all flown in from around the globe that day to be cut up into thin, pricey slices just for my benefit that evening. I'd feel a lot worse about it if the Sushi hadn't tasted so good.

Of course, if you've ever eaten... well, really anything that wasn't slaughtered in the room next to the kitchen in which your meal was prepared, you have probably had the same experience. It is just that it is so obvious when you are eating fish in the desert that everything is flown in from far away. Our greenhouse gas meal. We got free water too, which there isn't much of in the desert either.

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It was, though, really good fish.

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Forty Days in the Desert... Okay, Thirty-Eight Days... But that is close

I bid adieu to the South-West.

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On Wednesday, December 24th at 1:50 pm on a sunny day in Phoenix, my flight to Toronto left fifty minutes delayed thanks to weather in everywhere else in North America other than Phoenix. In fact, for the first time in 40-something years, every area in Canada had a white Christmas. That did, however, mean lengthy (i.e. days) delays, especially for those out west. Vancouver and snow do not mix well.

With my flight living the end of the runway in Phoenix and launching out into the blue skies, my 38 days in the desert ends. I may be back, though it seems doubtful. However, you never can tell with the economy nowadays. Anything past January 2nd at this point is unclear, and really even that isn't set in stone, as I might try and travel somewhere over the New Year's period. Cross my fingers for good last minute deals on hotels, train tickets and/or flights!

It has been an interesting five-and-a-half weeks for me out in Phoenix. I made a little coin, replenished the bank account, and rebuilt a little bit of my bruised ego (at least when it comes to thinking people don't want me to work for them). I had some excellent adventures and did some great hiking in Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Tombstone, Phoenix and Swansea. I even got to drive across London Bridge.

Mostly, though, I learnt about the desert, and gained an appreciation for why people come here. It is a beautiful place, but also a deadly place.

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While I always had a good supply of water, granola bars and never was really too far away from my car, it is easy to see how, without food or water (especially water), one could succumb to elements quickly. The desert is definitely a place to respect, even when going out for a day hike. For that reason, it is a humbling place. Much like being out in the brutal cold of winter, being out in the desert makes you realize how frail you, as a human being, are. It reminds us, and connects us to our humanity, and the fragility of that state.

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That being said, my 38 days in the desert has taught me one thing for sure. I really want to make my time in the U.K. work. I want to live abroad - truly abroad - and I really want to see this through to some sort of logically conclusion.

So, prepare yourself for more blog entires from the east-side of the Atlantic.. After a short stint at home in Toronto, I'll be at home in London, and hopefully back to immersing myself into a life European.

Posted by GregW 14:54 Archived in USA Tagged business_travel Comments (0)

Will You Still Love Me Once the Copper Is Gone?

Walking through the ghostly remains of the abandoned town of Swansea, Arizona

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In the late 1800s, some prospectors working in western Arizona came across a silver deposit. They worked the land until the silver was gone, and then abandoned it, leaving a "worthless" deposit of copper. As the century turned, copper became more valuable and T.J. Carrigan, noticing the nearby railway line, bought up the claims to the land and launched the Clara Consolidated Gold and Copper Mining. Soon after copper mining and milling was taking place in this little piece of desert. They named the place after the town in England where most of the copper ended up, Swansea.

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The town carried on successfully for years, until The Great Depression of the 1930s. With the declining copper market, the fortunes of Swansea faded and by the late 1940s the town was completely abandoned.

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Today, Swansea is mostly a crumbling collection of buildings in the desert, about 4 hours from Phoenix, or an hour north-west of Bouse, Arizona, along a gravel road that despite the warning sign, isn't too bad to drive, assuming it is dry.

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Despite having a population of almost 1,000 people, there is little left but flat desert. The huge piles of slag that still exist from the mining operation are the most lasting monument to the town of Swansea.

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Anything made of brick and cement is crumbling, anything made of metal is rusting.

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In 1908 the railway came to town. Today, you can still see the railway beds, the ties mostly buried under the sand and rock. The station house is falling down, today supported by trusses made of 2x4s so they don't fall over on the few folks hiking around the town.

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The worker's cottages were shocking small and close together, and that's coming from a guy who is now living in Europe!

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As you can see from the last photo, someone is working on restoring the worker's cottages. They have applied a new layer of stucco on the buildings and are putting up a corrugated tin roof. Why, of all the buildings, these are being restored, I don't know. They are some of the few buildings on the site now that have more than just the foundation and a few feet of half-ruined walls standing.

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Hundreds of people lived here for a period of 50 years. Today, nothing. A ghost town, they call it. Abandoned by living humans, but still haunted by the memories of its past inhabitants. Perhaps haunted by more than just memories.

Ooooooo.

...wait, did you hear something?

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The crumbling state of Swansea is a reminder that you can try and keep it at bay through organization and maintenance, but eventually time and the desert will intrude.

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Posted by GregW 17:00 Archived in USA Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

This Ain't The River Thames

Driving over London Bridge, Lake Havasu City, Arizona, USA

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This is London Bridge

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Built in the 1970s, the bridge carries the A3 across the River Thames, connecting the City of London on the north bank with Southwark on the south. It was opened on the 17th of March 1973 by HRH and current Queen of England, Elizabeth II. Designed by the firm of Mott, Hay, Hoe and Anderson with senior engineer Alan Simpson, the bridge is comprised of three spans of prestressed-concrete box girders, built to carry modern day road traffic for years into the future. Despite what you may have heard in nursey rhymes, it is NOT falling down. It is designed specifically not to fall down.

As you might guess, this was not the first bridge at this location. The Romans were the first to built a bridge near the site of the current London Bridge nearly 2000 years ago. It is believed that a wooden bridge spanned the River Thames, most likely a pontoon bridge, from about AD 50. The current bridge is at least the 8th bridge to span the river at this spot.

The current bridge replaced a bridge dating back to the 1830s and designed by John Rennie. It was opened on August 1, 1831, and as part of the ceremonies the HMS Beagle sailed under it, the first ship to pass under the new bridge.

When it was apparent in the 1960s that the bridge needed to be replaced, London decided to see if they could sell it. Robert P. McCulloch, founder of Lake Havasu City and a man rich from making Chainsaws, bought the bridge for a little over 2 million dollars and reassembled it over a boat channel in Lake Havasu City, London.

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Arizona, mostly desert, is known as a place where retirees from around North America come for the warm weather, dry air and early-bird dinner specials. I suppose it is no different for a bridge.

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Today the bridge is quite the tourist attraction, pulling in bus-loads of people to Lake Havasu City. It has become the 2nd most popular tourist attraction in Arizona, behind only the Grand Canyon. Heck, it drew me there.

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One thing is certain, though. With palm trees, mountains and sunshine, it doesn't look much like London.

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I have an XM satellite radio in my rental car, and they have a feed from BBC Radio 1. So, in keeping with the spirit of London, I listened to DJs from across the ocean prattle on about Christmas while I drove across London Bridge, 8000 miles from London and the River Thames.

If you can't see this video, go to Youtube to view it.

I haven't driven yet in the UK, so this was my first experience driving over London Bridge. Traffic was on the wrong side of the road.

Posted by GregW 08:35 Archived in USA Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

I am not scared of Mexico anymore

Cabo cures my fear

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A week ago, I hated Mexico.

I probably wouldn't have told you I hate Mexico if you had asked, because I wouldn't have wanted my dislike of the place to infect anyone else without them having a chance to make up their own mind. After all, lots of people go to Mexico every year, and really like it, so who am I to rain on anyone's parade. So if you had asked, I would have said something about it being a place with lots of interesting things to see, and a good place to party, but it isn't really my cup of tea.

Deep down, though, I would have been loathing the place. And the reason that I hated Mexico was because I was afraid of it.

Now, that might be a surprising admission given some of the places that I have travelled without any apparent care for my own safety, but Mexico always scared me. In my mind, Mexico was up there with Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan as scary places. There's a number of reasons for that.

First, I've been to Mexico. Twice, actually, which is pretty surprising for a place that I said I hated, but I have travelled twice to the country. Both times I got sick. Montezuma's revenge, they call it. Montezuma was the Aztec emperor of Mexico from 1502 until 1520, right at the time when the Spanish were conquering the land that would become known at Mexico. We all know that didn't go well for the locals. Now the emperor apparently gets his revenge by giving Gringo visitors to Mexico traveller's diarrhoea.

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Given that we come to their country and then dress like this, no wonder they hate us...

The first trip to Mexico, in 2000, was the worst. After avoiding the illness for the whole week, my last night there I woke up with a sharp pain in my stomach. I spent hours in the bathroom, suffering immensely. My second trip to Mexico in 2005 I got hit again, not as badly as the first time, but still not great.

So a week ago, the first reason I would have cited for hating Mexico was that it makes me sick.

Secondly, living in North America, I got lots of news coverage on events in Mexico. Most of it was bad. Sinaloa drug wars, tourists killed, corrupt police and politicians and illegal immigrants flooding across the border into the USA. Mexico seemed like a dangerous place from all the coverage.

Of course, I know that media outlets tend to only cover stories that are bad, and even then they often make things seem worse than it really is. I have been places that only gets negative news coverage, and saw that there are a lot more good stories to overcome the bad. I was in Toronto during the SARS crisis, and watched CNN talk about it being a ghost town while I watched a city that seemed to be moving along for the most part as before.

Finally, my past two trips to Mexico were to all-inclusive resorts. The kind of places that make money by arranging group tours, so have an agenda to make it seem a little scary to leave the resort without proper guidance.

For all these reasons, that's why it was surprising that I found myself booking a weekend trip from Phoenix to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. I am not sure why I booked it, and I fretted over it afterwards. Looking at my airline itinerary and hotel booking, I kept asking myself what I was getting myself into. Travelling Mexico by myself. Would I be scammed? Would I be mugged? Would I be killed in my hotel room by banditos? I almost think that if I hadn't booked a non-refundable airfare, I might have chickened out. Luckily I'm cheap, so I took the flight.

Cabo San Lucas is on the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula, that bit of Mexico that runs down south from California, USA, surrounding by the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Gulf of California on the east, though locals call the Gulf of California the Sea of Cortez.

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Cabo San Lucas, as well as the corridor from San Jose del Cabo to Cabo San Lucas along the water is well developed with tourist infrastructure, and the development continues today. Tourists come for the sunny weather, sand beaches, fishes and other earthly delights.

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These are the other earthly delights I was talking about

The town was all decked out for two reasons. Firstly, the upcoming Christmas holiday. Secondly, December 12th, the day I arrived, was the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe. On December 12, 1531, Juan Diego saw the Virgin, who then became imprinted on Diego's blanket. Folks paraded through the streets in colourful costumes and carrying religious icons.

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My hotel was right by the Marina. The marina has a nice walkway along the water, but there are a ton of touts along there. They all seem to have a very diverse portfolio of products.

"Hey man, you want to go fishing? Ready for jet ski? How about I give you $150 to see a timeshare presentation? No, how about these silver bracelets? What about some weed? Some blow? You want to get high?"

Now, these touts are exactly the kind of folks that scare me. People whose sole goal is to rip me off. But I quickly discovered that while they may be persistent, they do take no for an answer once you have responded to all their offers.

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Other than that, I wasn't mugged once. In fact, most of the people I meet seemed very nice and interested in my rather convoluted personal situation.

"Where are you from?" A bartender asked me.

"I was born in Canada, but I live in London, England. Right now, though, I am working in Phoenix, Arizona. So I am a Canadian-born, English-resident, American-worker visiting Mexico."

"Wow. I have never travelled outside of Mexico."

Nice people chatting with me, instead of folks trying to rip me off or kill me. Surprises from Mexico, a country I was sure would leave me beat up on the side of the road.

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While many of the people I talked to haven't travelled outside of Mexico, they have travelled. Like many places that are growing quickly, most of the people working there seemed to come from other places. Cabo and the jobs is a draw from across the country.

One of the places that those people end up working is Cabo Wabo. It's a bar owned by Sammy Hagar, the replacement lead singer for Van Halen and the man who sang "I Can't Drive 55!" That's Sammy's photo on the wall on the left. On the right you see Bono, lead singer of U2. I can only assume that he was in the bar trying to abolish 3rd world debt by personally spending money on beer. The beer there is expensive. $USD 4. Most places, beer was only $USD 2 or $USD 3, with lots of deals like buy 6 beers in a bucket of ice for $10.

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Though it may not seem it from the first two stories I told, but I did not spend the entire time in a bar. I went to the beach on Saturday, and spend the day swimming. Beautiful beach with warm, calm water. The drop off is very steep, so you walk into the water and only have to walk out about 10 feet before the water is up to your neck. Very cool.

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Unfortunately I don't have a photo of me getting out of the water, as I left my camera in my hotel room when I went swimming. I didn't want to bring too much stuff to the beach, lest someone steal it while I was in the water. I can provide this replica photo of me walking out of the water.

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No one did steal my stuff on the beach while I was in the water, despite the fact it was left alone and there was ample opportunity. Yet more surprises from the country I hated.

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As Cabo San Lucas is known as a fishing village and sport fishing paradise, I decided to eat seafood. I ended up eating both nights at a place called The Crazy Lobster on Manuel Hidalgo. Excellent food, and the best part, it didn't make me sick once. Perhaps Montezuma had enough revenge on me my past two trips.

I flew back this afternoon, sad to be leaving so soon. Cabo San Lucas changed my mind. I don't hate Mexico, and it doesn't scare me anymore.

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Posted by GregW 20:41 Archived in Mexico Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

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